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Virtual Gets Real

A more immersive viewing experience is now possible with a range of new and affordable virtual reality headsets.
By Nidhi Singal   Delhi     Print Edition: April 10, 2016

From being a dead medium, Virtual Reality has resurrected itself. The technology - in existence for several years - is becoming a rage today, thanks to affordable viewers, also called VR headsets, and engaging content that enhance the viewing experience. While it is known to have revolutionised the gaming and entertainment industries, its usage in fields such as medicine, tourism and education is endless. Get set for an immersive viewing experience that transcends mere sight and sound, and transports you to a virtual three-dimensional world, using a few pieces of hardware and a compatible software ecosystem. Here are a few devices you can strap around your head and watch the virtual world come alive.

Cardboard: Google has made this technology affordable with its Cardboard VR viewer, which can be purchased at a starting price of Rs 230 from Getcardboard.in. This is a do-it-yourself (DIY) kit that includes a cardboard cut-out with a prefixed ceramic disk magnet, an eyepiece with two prefixed biconvex lenses, separator, neodymium ring magnet, Velcro pieces and an elastic head band. Using the instruction manual, you can assemble the VR in less than five minutes. Once assembled, install the Cardboard app on your smartphone and scan the QR code on the viewer to set it up. The Cardboard app has a few demos, too. You can launch the app and insert your phone in the VR viewer. For interaction with the app, you can use the magnet added at the side of the viewer. Be it enjoying a roller coaster ride, playing space games or viewing 360-degree videos, the experience is great. But it all depends on the kind of the app you are using. It strained my eyes a bit - happens with most VRs. The Cardboard viewer does not come with a lens cleaning cloth or a storage case.

ANTVR: ANTVR, designed by Lenovo, is priced at Rs 1,299 and is available through Amazon India. As per the company's claims, it is compatible with only a select few Lenovo smartphones that come with built-in TheaterMax technology - known to provide widescreen virtual cinematic experience. The VR mode can be switched on by long pressing the power button on the compatible phone. It divides the screen into two, displaying the same content, and when the phone is inserted in the ANTVR, it delivers a 3D cinematic experience. Unlike traditional VR that works using apps and specialised content, the TheaterMax technology uses the fundamentals of stereoscopy to create a large, virtual cinematic experience when viewed through a VR headset. It allows the user to view existing videos, stream content such as live sports, and even play games. The ANTVR headset has a 100-degree field of view. While it was convenient to view almost any video on the ANTVR, VR apps had to be played when TheaterMax mode was turned off. Any smartphone with Cardboard and VR apps work well on this headset; it is not just restricted to Lenovo smartphones. The ANTVR is made of hard plastic and its foldable VR glasses design makes it easy to carry. But, unlike other VR headsets that are usually closed from the sides to avoid light from entering, this one is open and the light entering the VR from the sides was distracting. This viewer worked well with most Android smartphones, but the experience varied with the apps used.

Freefly VR:
This VR headset, too, is made of plastic, but looks better than most others. It has a soft leather padding that sits tight against the face, yet is comfortable to wear. This lightweight headset comes with really nice lenses. Inserting the smartphone is very simple - press the button to open the sides and push the lever to open the cover. Once the phone is placed, you need to push the sides inside and lock the cover. It fits in smartphones with up to 5.5-inch display with ease. Unlike the Cardboard, which has the magnet for interaction, this one doesn't. Instead, Freefly has added a wireless controller that connects with the phone for interaction. It can be used for launching apps, navigating and for playing games. You don't have to remove the headset for any of the above mentioned activities. Unfortunately, there is no focus adjustment, but the images are clear. The experience of watching movies and playing games on Freefly is far superior to that on Cardboard or ANT VR. This viewer comes neatly packed in a case that is convenient to store and carry.

Samsung Gear VR: Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus (the company that revived the VR revolution), is the best of the lot. It has a great hardware with a navigation trackpad and focus adjustment, too. As it is restricted to a few flagship Samsung smartphones (including Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S7, S7 Edge and Note 5), it offers a Super AMOLED display screen to experience VR. The device docks into the microUSB slot that moves back and forth, making it easy to mount the phone in the viewer. To get started, you need the Oculus VR app (which is 100+ MB in size). As soon as the phone is mounted, the Android UI is replaced with the VR UI. You can choose and download from the plenty of free and paid apps, including a wide range of videos and games. Gear VR is far superior to any of the above mentioned VR viewers; I felt like I was a part of most of the images and videos. I was able to continue wearing the headset and enjoy content for a longer period of time without straining my eyes. While the 3.5-mm jack is easily accessible to plug in a headphone, you can even charge the phone when it is inserted in the VR.

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